by Joy Castro; New York, Arcade Publishing, 2005, 230 pages, $25.00
Dr. Barber is clinical director and medical director of the Ulster County Mental Health Department in Kingston, New York.
The title of Joy Castro's memoir, The Truth Book, refers to the book that Jehovah's Witnesses hand to potential converts, "The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life." Joy is adopted at birth by a couple who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Her father is "disfellowshipped" by the Witnesses for smoking when Joy is seven, and her parents later divorce. When Joy is 12, her mother marries an extremely controlling, abusive man who is a Witness elder. For the two years that follow, Joy and her younger brother suffer beatings, starvation, sexual abuse, and isolation from the outside world until Joy is able to run away to her father.
The book's main shortcoming is its tabloidesque cover, bright-red with a black banner across the front and a black-and-white photo of Joy and her brother as children. It suggests that the contents will be an exposé of the Jehovah's Witness community. Certainly, the role of the Jehovah's Witness leadership in allowing the abuse to continue plays a central role in the story. The close-knit and separatist nature of the Witness community, their beliefs in corporal punishment for children and the father's dominance in the family, and the secular world's reluctance to interfere with religious practices all work against Joy's efforts to escape her torture. Yet the story resonates much more broadly than an indictment of the Jehovah's Witness community. Above all it is a compelling personal family history and a story of triumph and resilience.
In her memoir, we experience how the abuse affects Joy's 12-year-old mind and how it continues to affect her in its aftermath. This thread is interwoven with the story of Joy's father, who buried his Cuban background as a young man in an effort to fit into American society. As Joy tries to piece her father's contradictions together, we learn of the sadness behind the ebullience she witnesses as a young child and of the affairs that ultimately end his first marriage. The book chronicles and tries to make sense of his suicide, which occurs when Joy is in her early thirties and a successful young English professor. She also seems to try to connect her mother's early tendency to berate and emotionally abuse her with her decision to leave her first husband and marry an abusive man. Interestingly, we never find out how Joy's parents became Jehovah's Witnesses or whether they were raised in that faith.
Clearly, no easy explanations are available for Joy's parents' behavior or decisions, and the author does not try to offer any. Nor does she give any societal prescriptions to end violence against children. This is simply and powerfully a literate, sensitively written window into one young person's world. Reading about Joy's journey through her horrors and toward making peace with herself and her past may be helpful to others who have experienced abuse and to those who treat them.